By Tim Dahlberg AP Sports Columnist
Now is when things really start to get interesting for the little school that always seems to play so big.
Look for Gonzaga on the map and it takes someone in the know to find the Catholic school in the corner of the Pacific Northwest. Look for the Zags on the basketball map at this time of the year and they’re usually a lot easier to find.
John Stockton once played for the school, before he went on to a Hall-of-Fame career making sure the Mailman, Karl Malone, was always in position to deliver. Stockton’s son, David, plays there now, though he’s not quite the assist machine his father once was.
Gonzaga has gone to the last 14 NCAA tournaments, once advancing to within one win of the Final Four. They’re usually the kind of team other coaches hate to face early because they always seem so fundamentally sound.
Now they’re No. 2 in The Associated Press Top 25 poll, the school’s highest ranking ever. And as selection time gets near and the No. 1 seeds are picked, the question becomes this:
Why not Gonzaga?
Why not, indeed. If there’s ever a season a mid-major can become a No. 1 seed and get on the inside track to the Final Four, it’s this one.
The Zags have been tournament darlings before, sure. But this year they’re a legitimate top-five pick on anyone’s ballot — and a No. 1 pick by one voter in the AP weekly poll.
Parity reigns across the nation and, until Indiana solidified things at the top, being No. 1 was a crown to be worn uneasily. But while the Bulldogs may play in a small conference, they played a big-school schedule to make sure they’re ready in March.
They’re done with the label of being the little school that can. Their coach points to the schedule and says they can’t even be considered a mid-major anymore.
They’ve been playing — and beating — the big boys for so long they’re simply a very good college basketball team. Period.
“Our body of work speaks for itself,” guard Mike Hart said Monday. “Our two losses (Illinois and at Butler) were quality losses. We’ve had a great group of games and a schedule that has been tough.”
That Gonzaga is a heartbeat away from the top spot in American basketball is largely due to a pair of Canadians who couldn’t be more different.
Kevin Pangos is the guard who grew up idolizing Steve Nash and can’t stand to not be in the gym. Kelly Olynyk is the late-blooming 7-footer with the flowing locks who looks like he would be comfortable joining Bill Walton at a Grateful Dead concert.
Pangos was a success from the minute he put on a uniform at Gonzaga, coming off the bench in his first game as a freshman last year and then starting every game since. Olynyk, who grew seven inches while in high school, struggled off the bench for two seasons before taking a year off last season to bulk up and work on his skill set and become one of the top big men in the country.
Together they’ve got the Bulldogs at 27-2 with two games left until the West Coast Conference tournament.
It would all be heady stuff, except Gonzaga has been here before. Maybe not quite this high in the rankings, but coach Mark Few’s team has won four of every five games since he took over in 1999, and the Zags always seem to be in the mix late in the season.
If there’s a knock against the Bulldogs — the official team nickname, though they’re known everywhere as the Zags — it’s the usual one for teams from smaller schools (Gonzaga’s enrollment is about 7,500). They play in a conference with schools they almost always dominate, making it hard to get a fix on just how good they are once the conference schedule begins.
If they were a football team, they’d be Boise State. The formula is win a few tough ones early, then beat up on conference wannabes and move up in the rankings while teams in more competitive conferences struggle. This deep into the season, though, Gonzaga has no doubt it belongs among the elite teams in the country.
“The polls mean a lot more this time of year than they do in November, December, even January,” Few said. “All of us are being judged on the true body of work. It’s definitely rewarding. It establishes us as a national program, which I believe we have been for the last 10 years. This group has done a great job of competing at that level, winning games at the highest level.”
To win a bunch of them in a row in the NCAA tournament requires the kind of talent that some Gonzaga teams of the past have lacked. The difference this year might be Olynyk, a rare big man with the ball-handling instincts of the guard he once was.
After redshirting as a junior last year, he’s now a potential first-round NBA pick averaging 17.7 points and seven rebounds a game.
“He grew up and his game grew up,” Few said.
The same might be said about the school nobody in basketball considers little anymore.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg